Why Biblical Hebrew for Day School Teachers?


Rahel Halabe has taught Biblical and Modern Hebrew in both academic and non-academic frameworks. She has created the Hinneh introductory curriculum as well as 3 levels of Mini Ulpanim for Modern Hebrew.

Teachers who know the basics of Biblical Hebrew are more confident when preparing and delivering their Torah/Nakh classes. They are able to approach the texts directly, before referring to other resources, traditional or modern, to interpret them. Familiarity with Biblical Hebrew adds another dimension also to those teaching Modern Hebrew conversation or literature, which both, still echo much of Classical Hebrew.

Students in Jewish day schools encounter Hebrew texts of different genres and periods: Biblical, Rabbinic, Medieval, and of course, Modern Hebrew. There is much overlap among them, especially, between Biblical and Modern Hebrew. In today’s Hebrew, we see and hear, sit and stand, come and go, love and hate in the same common biblical verbs; we drink water and eat bread; have fathers, mothers, sons and daughters in our families; and live through days, weeks, months and years - all with the same biblical nouns. Many grammatical subjects too, are common to both, i.e., construct chains (smikhut), roots (shorashim), verb stems (binyanim), root groups (gzarot), prepositions with their pronominal suffixes. Much of what we teach in Modern Hebrew, can be applied, when learning a Biblical text, and vice versa – much of the language acquired through classical texts, can be easily transferred to today Hebrew class.

Still, there are also significant differences in both vocabulary and grammar, which teachers may not always be clear about or aware of, for example:

nefesh, in the Bible is more likely to mean breath, life, or self (even throat), rather than the common translation - soul; lehem is not only bread, but also food; olam refers mostly to time, ever, rather than to space, world; na’ar, may refer to a young man, a baby, or anyone in between, as well as to a servant; shama’, means not only hear or listen, but also hearken, understand, or obey; and so on and so forth.

Add to that the Biblical Hebrew ‘tenses’, which are not clear cut, but much more ‘fluid’ than what we are accustomed to in Modern Hebrew: Thus, verb forms, which we understand today as indicating the past or future tenses, may both point in the Bible, to all of the present, past, command, or a variety of subjunctives. And no, it is not only a “vav” that determines the flip in time/tense. Hebrew teachers, especially those, whose native language is Hebrew, intuitively, but correctly, interpret ‘tenses’ in the biblical text. However, when it comes to explaining the reason for their interpretation to their students, they may need additional help and more tools.

Teachers who are aware of the similarities and differences between Biblical and Modern Hebrew are able to draw on them to support their students learning in both Limudei Kodesh and Modern Hebrew classes. Their better knowledge and awareness help them set their teaching priorities and goals. To that end, day school teachers need good language resources: Biblical Hebrew lexicons, good Modern Hebrew dictionaries, and both of Biblical and Modern Hebrew grammars/reference books.

For Biblical Hebrew, the new revised edition of Hinneh – Biblical Hebrew the Practical Way, published by the Hebrew University Magnes Press, would be an excellent choice. Hinneh introduces the basic grammar and vocabulary of the biblical text in a rigorous, but friendly manner. It presents what is common to both Biblical and Modern Hebrew, as well as what is characteristic to Biblical Hebrew only. The Hinneh Tool Box contains frequently occurring biblical vocabulary lists (verbs, nouns, prepositions) complete with pronominal suffixes, bright verb paradigms, and more. The Hinneh E-Tool Box is now color-coded and makes the learning of the verb system (binyanim and root groups) clearer than ever. You may choose to use Hinneh to upgrade your level, study on your own, in hevruta with your colleagues, with an instructor, or use it as a reference to find answers to question you encounter. 

Updated: Apr. 25, 2018